The Pacific Northwest Trail is twelve hundred miles long. On one end, in Glacier National Park, the Rocky Mountains yawn and show a mouth full of craggy teeth. On the other, the trail slithers along the coastline and comes to rest at Cape Alava on Washington’s Olympic peninsula. It’s as far west as one can west in the lower 48.
In between those points waits all the magic of the Pacific Northwest: Montana and Idaho and the many faces of Washington. The corridor has become my home for the season. For most of my career as a ranger, I have worked for one agency: one forest, one park, one management unit. Now, suddenly, I am twined up in twelve hundred miles, crossing thickets of federal and state management agencies.
For now, I am making my way around western Washington.
Mornings in western Washington belong to the Swainson’s thrush. Just before dawn, they begin to sing, pied pipers that pull the fog inland. If you have spent time in the Pacific Northwest, you have surely heard the Swainson’s thrush – even if you have not put a name to her song. It’s a ringing ditty that almost seems to echo, each note a little higher than the last, the tune as round as a pebble and ending with a bright, clear trill. It is rather rare to see these birds, small and unassuming as they are. After a while, you begin to suspect that the song doesn’t really belong to the bird, but is some haunting quality of the forest itself.
The forests here are dominated by Douglas fir, although the distinctive western red cedars are what really leave an impression. The Douglas fir is a tree easily recognizable by its deeply furrowed, dark bark. They grow tall and thin here, densely packed, interrupted only by tufts of bracken and sword ferns. In contrast, the red cedars space themselves out more modestly and are often much more robust for this apparent prudence. Their trunks are often too wide to put your arms around, although the bark is inviting, red and soft with thin rivulets.
The forest here is full of tricks; everything wears a disguise. The western red cedar is not a true cedar, and the Douglas fir is not a true fir. The canopy echoes with songs from invisible birds. Old, wide stumps stand scattered here-and-there, growing bushes of red huckleberry like wigs. (If you know to look, you can find springboard notches on these trunks. The notches are essentially steps cut into the tree, once used by loggers to stand upon while cutting down these massive trees.)
On June 3rd, National Trails Day, I will be leading my first guided hike along the Pacific Northwest Trail. We will be hiking through this forest of disguises, searching the landscape for clues of the past. We will stop at the hard packed meadow left by an old homestead, the scarred cliff of an old quarry, and a hidden entrance to a mine. We’ll find where woodpeckers have their dinner and the hiding place of a mythical mouse. The PNT is full of secrets. I will give away five on this hike, but there are a thousand more to find on your own.
For more information on the PNTA’s guided hikes this season, please visit: http://wwww.PNT.org/calendar/
Listen to the Swainson’s thrush here: https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Swainsons_Thrush/sounds